Baseball is America, mom, apple pie and working below minimum wage

Most of the players in minor league baseball, especially on teams in independent leagues such as the Saint Paul Saints, aren’t going anywhere.

But that’s not the way most of the public sees them, which is why there won’t be much notice today when/if Congress puts the screws to them by denying them minimum wage protections.

Minor league teams consider players to be “apprentices” and seasonal employees, allowing them to earn as little as $1,100 a month under exemptions to the minimum wage law.

City Pages notes today that’s particularly galling for teams like the Saints, who had taxpayers build a new stadium downtown which is filled for every game. Someone’s making money; it’s not the players.

The team gathers its roster from players unable to land a spot on any of the 150-plus minor league teams operated by Major League Baseball. They’re the unvalued and overlooked, the has-beens and never-weres. To argue that they’re interning for the majors is akin to saying the loading dock worker is in training to become the CEO.

Still, unlike most parasites – say, the owner of the Pioneer Press — the Saints give a great deal back to the city. They routinely sell out by offering the most fan-friendly sporting experience in town. While prices are on the high side for minor league fare, at least your wallet doesn’t want to file rape charges every time you enter the stadium, as it does with the bigger franchises in town.

Last year’s average attendance of 8,200 was double their league average. Fans, at least, are finding clear value in the Saints’ continued operation.

The Saints could push the American Association to raise the salary cap, but that’s likely to just kill teams on the less fortunate end of the spectrum. While St. Paul is a miniature gold mine, this is not a league that plays in lands of riches. Teams in Grand Prairie, Texas and Sioux City, Iowa draw less than 1,300 a night. Baseball doesn’t work when there’s no one left to play.

The Saints are seeking an exemption from state minimum wage laws. The state minimum wage is higher than the national minimum wage.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, says congressional leaders are mostly refusing to talk about the issue, after being lobbied hard by Major League Baseball. For that reason, many expect a provision granting the exemption will appear suddenly in a spending bill expected to be released this evening.

“We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable,” Pat O’Conner, the president of Minor League Baseball, tells the Post. “I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

But minor leaguers have been challenging the rules, which is why Congress needs to extend the exemptions to save the very game of baseball. Or so we’re told.

“This is about billionaire owners using their clout to try to pass something that isn’t going through the normal procedures of legislature and that is only going to make thousands of minor leaguers suffer even more,” Garrett R. Broshuis, a St. Louis lawyer
representing a group of players, said. “We’re just talking about basic minimum wage laws here — the same laws that McDonald’s has to comply with, the same laws that Walmart has to comply with. And so surely if Walmart or McDonald’s can find a way to comply with those laws, then Major League Baseball can find a way to comply with them, too.”

O’Connor, meanwhile, waved the flag.

“We’re in 42 states, 160 cities. We’ve got over $3 billion of infrastructure, much of which is still being paid off by the clubs and the communities where they exist,” he said. “This is about constituents, this is about jobs at home, and this is about quality of life at home.”

The blog, Knuckleballs, asks a good question: If making players work for next to nothing is fair, why are politicians so secretive about the exemption?

Players at lower levels (such as with the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels) are making maybe $1,200 per month. That’s GROSS pay, by the way.

The players that will be sent to Cedar Rapids at the beginning of April aren’t getting paid that while they’re down in Ft. Myers for spring training, either. They get paid only for time spent on an active minor league roster. In the minor leagues, that’s five months… at most. Many players play in “short season” leagues that run only three months during the summer.

Just for reference, I made better money working for a fast food burger chain… in 1976.

  • Mike Worcester
  • Kassie

    What happens when St. Paul raises their minimum wage to $15/hour, which they likely will do? It won’t matter if the State exempts them, will it? At some point the salary cap needs to be addressed to allow for players to make minimum wage in the cities they represent.

    • Gary F

      If the salary cap is increased, many of its competitors, from much smaller markets with much smaller marketing revenues, will not be able to compete. If the Saints don’t have enough competition, the league goes away.

      If the Saints have to abide by the $15 minimum wage and the salary cap isn’t raised, the Saints will have a harder time putting a competitive team on the field. Sure its fun, but less fun if we are always losing.

      Imaging that, people actually knowing the job pays under minimum wage but still willing to do it.

      • I’d call that a “market failure”, then. Why should we as a society prop up businesses that need to pay starvation wages in order to operate? It’s nothing more than externalizing costs, a tactic as old as business itself.

        • Jerry

          I assume anti-regulation advocates sit around wondering “Why can’t our country be more like Bangladesh?”

          • Rob

            Forget the sitting around part. Anti-regulation lobbyists and their legislative toadies are actively working to make the U.S. more like Bangladesh.

      • If an increased salary cap threatens some of the smaller market teams and potentially the league itself, then larger market teams like the Saints should propose a revenue sharing model like other sports leagues such as the NFL use. It seems to work out well for them.

      • Rob

        If we end up not having independent leagues because the owners can’t or won’t do the decent thing on wages, TFB.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        Actually, the Saints might be able to field a team of All-stars because players will want to play here because they’ll get paid better. (see: Yankees, New York or Dodgers, Los Angeles in MLB as examples.)

        • wjc

          But they may only be able to have 8 players in order to be under the salary cap.

      • Kassie

        They could raise the salary cap to “whatever it takes to pay the legal minimum wage…” Part of the reason the minimum wage is higher here is because it is more expensive to live here. I assume the minor league folks actually live here, but I could be wrong about that. Could they also pay different wages for away games based on the minimum wage at those locations?

    • KTFoley

      I would guess that if the ruling is that players don’t need to be paid minimum wage, then it doesn’t much matter where the minimum is set.

  • Jack

    Here’s a radical idea. How about the major league equivalent (baseball, hockey) create a fund that is used by the minor league (feeder) teams to get to a reasonable minimal wage across the minor league footprint?

    Want to keep everything on a level playing field and avoid the higher minimum wage cities from skewing results by paying more for top talent? Make the minimum wage in the league the highest minimum wage dictated by a city in the league.

  • Rob

    I make it a habit not to support businesses that aren’t willing to pay their employees at least minimum wage. No more Saints baseball for me.

    • Nato Coles

      I’m a labor guy, and I’m right there with you in spirit, and I do support boosting the pay of minor/indy leaguers to a living wage. However, under the law as it is written, the Saints and American Association teams (and minor league teams) aren’t bound by hourly minimum wage requirements, or alternately the definition of work is so muddled that teams can claim players are only “working” during games if they so choose. The Saints are rational actors here, not bad actors necessarily. The law should change so that players are paid a living wage, and that’s that. In the meantime, I think it’s ok to go to a Saints game or two.

      • Rob

        The Saints are totally free to pay their players a decent wage, regardless of whether the law requires them to. It’s called looking out for the best interests of your employees/players. Or, if you prefer, moral leadership.

        • Except they still have to stay under the salary cap rules that the league imposes. So could this effort be used to raise that cap and pay all the players of that league a better wage?

          • Rob

            Sounds good to me.

  • KTFoley

    We’re focusing on minor league baseball because the ruling is for their case, but it does bring to mind a number of other jobs where the wage works out to something far below the minimum.

    Camp counselors, for example: summer camps are a pretty big industry and provide an economic lifeline to a lot of rural areas that don’t have much else on tap. But their application of the same rationale, interns & seasonal labor, means the only people working there are those who, implicitly or explicitly, consent to subsidizing the industry by forgoing a minimum wage.

    Would the general public be rallying on one side or another if the conversation was about making sure those employees can be paid while the venues can still be viable?

    Can the same ardor for discussion be sustained on analogous cases that don’t involve sports?

  • Guest

    Larger Issue:
    IF I have a job (play baseball, camp counselor, intern, musician) and I offer $X wages & benefits while getting twice the number of applicants I can use……IS society better off saying my jobs should not existing anymore because I offer less than minimum wage?

    Should practice time be counted for a sport, musician? Should sleeping / eating / play time be counted for a camp counselor?

    • Lindsey

      Camp counselors generally get one hour off each day. The rest of the time, they are responsible for their campers, even while sleeping (which they get much less of than the kids).

      If practice is mandated by your job, then you should be paid for it.

      If you are a parent, do you consider sleeping an activity that exempts you from your responsibilities as a parent?

    • Rob

      The answer to both questions is: Yes

      • Guest

        So the call whether the job should even exist is up to society (minimum wage laws) and the choice of all those applicant that WANT the job should be ignored.

        That is a logical conclusion, but once the law starts telling musicians and counselors what jobs they are allowed to accept, they will not be thanking you.

        On one hand I can see telling the guy who wants a job sweeping the parking lot for too little “Tough, we don’t want that job in our society” but it also means telling unpaid interns the same thing.

        I see both good and bad aspects of that zero-tolerance approach.

        What is your stand on sheltered workshops for the mentally or physically challenged?

        • Rob

          Sheltered workshops should pay at least minimum wage. Mentally or physically challenged people should have the same rights not to have their labor exploited as anybody else.

          • Guest

            That is a reasonable view.

            So in your view, if a challenged person can only put out 1/3 the rate of a normal person, better that whole sheltered workshop wither away than to pay on a piece rate such that a person only gets $5 an hour.

            Just checking exactly what your view is about.

  • Nato Coles

    I’ve seen at least one study show that MLB teams would only need to budget around $1.5m each TOTAL to pay their minor league players a “generous” salary of at least $25,000/year (again, approximately, and that’s an arbitrary dollar amount, too. Maybe it should be more, maybe less, that’s not my point). With team revenues up virtually across the board, how hard would this be? Plus, the players could take better care of themselves, eat healthier food (ie more expensive, ie not fast food/processed food). If I were the MLBPA, I would fight for my minor leaguers the next time a CBA is negotiated.

    The American Association, on the other hand, doesn’t have huge team revenues, but the Saints are by far the wealthiest team in the league. Could they afford to pay their players minimum wage in St Paul? Probably, even at $15/hr. But the other teams, maybe not so much. It’s an interesting topic.

    • BJ

      Each MLB team has 4 minor league teams, rookie, A, AA, AAA

      Each team has 25 player roster (AA, AAA I think A and rookie might be different).

      Salary isn’t the only expense: taxes, SS, health care.

      But yeah, for less than $2.5 Million a year and this goes away (since they are already paying something).

    • David

      “If I were the MLBPA, I would fight for my minor leaguers the next time a CBA is negotiated.”
      I’m no union expert. I can’t see the union fighting on behalf of potential future members. Unions usually only fight for their existing members, right?